In the two weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and the eight weeks since the draft opinion leaked to the public, the Biden administration has largely thrown up its hands on reproductive rights. With the release of his executive order on Friday, Biden seems poised to do more of the same: Nothing.
The order broadly claims to (eventually) protect access to abortion medication, contraception, and emergency contraception; protect patients’ and providers’ privacy and safety; and “convene volunteer lawyers” and “launch public education efforts.” In other words, completely insufficient moves that won’t protect abortion rights, but allow Biden to pretend that he tried to intervene.
And the details of even these lackluster efforts remain vague. Instead of concrete actions or plans, Biden directs Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to submit a report in 30 days with further steps.
The executive order was a response to pressure from both his party and supporters to take more decisive action on protecting abortion rights following weeks of inaction. Progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have highlighted that the Biden administration’s hands are far from tied, and could take steps like expanding the Supreme Court, opening abortion clinics on federal lands, expanding access to abortion pills, and more.
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However, the Biden administration has largely eschewed these suggestions, and only recently signalled support for an exception to the filibuster, a move that could allow Senate Democrats to codify abortion into federal law if they win more Senate seats in November’s midterm elections. Administration officials have likewise dragged their feet since the Supreme Court’s decision. Secretary Becerra said that, “There is no magic bullet, but if there is something we can do, we will find it and we will do it.”
Instead, the Biden administration has shifted responsibility to Congress, and called for people to channel their rage to the ballot box — this despite the fact that Democrats already hold majorities in both the House and the Senate. In a statement after the Court’s decision was released, Biden emphasized, “This fall, we must elect more senators and representatives who will codify a woman’s right to choose into federal law once again, elect more state leaders to protect this right at the local level.” Democrats have wasted no time in exploiting the issue for funding: they have already raked in over $80 million in contributions since the rollback of abortion rights.
It can be tempting to chalk up Biden and the Democrats’ failures on abortion — or other abandoned legislation, like free community college or the Build Back Better agenda — to ineptitude and lack of resolve. Why, despite congressional majorities, can’t Democrats muster the strength to protect our rights, especially when faced with an ascendant far-right and an increasingly extreme Republican Party?
But as we’ve written before, the Democrats aren’t bad at politics — it’s their politics that are bad. Democrats spent the days after the leaked Supreme Court decision helping secure the electoral victory of anti-choice Democrat Henry Cuellar, and were even planning to nominate an anti-choice Republican to a federal judgeship on the day that Roe was overturned. This hypocrisy reveals the truth about Democrats’ priorities, and commitment to reproductive rights. As Ezra Brain notes,
The Democrats have had almost 50 years to pass abortion legislation, including multiple presidencies and majorities, and a super majority under Barack Obama. And yet, abortion rights have been steadily chipped away at since Roe became law. This is because the Democrats don’t want to actually protect abortion rights — partly because it’ll lose them their best campaign issue, partly because they don’t want to lose the anti-abortion sectors of their base, and partly because actually moving to meaningfully protect abortion rights would provoke a polarized reaction and run the risk of de-stabilizing the status quo. And the Democrats, as servants of capital, are primarily concerned with maintaining capitalist stability. So they haven’t — and they won’t — act to protect abortion.
It’s worth noting that Democrats do get things done when they want to. For example, Congress recently managed to almost unanimously pass legislation to provide around-the-clock protection for Supreme Court justices in order to thwart protests. Democrats also always successfully boost military spending, like this year’s record-breaking $847 billion budget. Historically, the Democratic Party, including Joe Biden, has also played a key role in policies which harm the working class and oppressed, from the disastrous welfare “reform,” to the 1994 crime bill, to the Hyde amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortion.
While Biden and the Democrats may pretend that their hands are now tied when it comes to abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and programs to help the working class and oppressed, there is ample political will and funding when it comes to shoring up capitalism and imperialism.
The Democratic Party can never be trusted to secure our reproductive rights, and the way to protect abortion isn’t by focusing our energies on ending the filibuster, ousting anti-choice Democrats, packing the court, or donating to local Democratic politicians. The only way to secure reproductive rights is to build an independent mass movement, taking the fight to the streets and to our workplaces. Recent protests have shown that there is plenty of energy and anger to fight for free, safe, and legal abortion, on demand and without apology. It’s time for us to harness it.